Troubled Taos animal shelter loses director - again

Gfeller cites Stray Hearts financial trouble among reasons for stepping down after only four months

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After working at Stray Hearts Animal Shelter as the executive director for not quite three months, Jennifer Gfeller announced Tuesday (July 4) she is stepping down from the position, effective immediately.

Her departure adds to the difficult past of the deeply troubled Taos animal shelter.

After being hired in March and starting in April, Gfeller came to Taos with several years of experience in running a shelter and was ambitious about her future at Stray Hearts. Although Gfeller let the shelter's board of directors know June 13 of her plans to leave, she moved up her departure date by a week to July 4, stating in an email that she was extremely sad to be leaving the community, volunteers and staff at the shelter.

"I have been disturbed by the comments that have been floating around and quickly realized that my smooth exit was not going to be happening and can't subject myself to this type of drama," Gfeller said in an email sent to board members and others in the public.

"The unstable financial situation of the organization is just not something I want to be a part of," said Gfeller Wednesday (June 5) in a phone interview. "It's just the way things go sometimes. ... I know what's not going to work for me and I can't be in a situation where I'm going to be unhappy."

Board members were taken aback by Gfeller's earlier-than-expected resignation and sent a press release on Wednesday to formally announce her departure to the public.

"Jennifer decided that this was not the appropriate opportunity for her," SHAS Board President Barbara Ann Downs said in the press release Wednesday. "When she accepted the position she hoped her main focus would be on shelter operations. The reality of our tough financial situation and the required emphasis on fundraising and budget management was ultimately not what she wanted to do."

Members of the board declined to give further comments to The Taos News at the time, as they will be filling in as interim directors until they can fill the vacant position. Board members will be developing a plan to hire a new director, but for now have decided, with their several years of shelter care and experience, to step in for the meantime.

Volunteers at the shelter were also shocked to hear of Gfeller's departure and said they were glad when she took the position. Pennie Herrera Wardlow, executive director of Four Corners Animal League and a longtime volunteer at SHAS, said that, though she had not been involved much with Stray Hearts since December, she was impressed with Gfeller's work ethic and was hopeful for the shelter under her time as executive director.

"I was really excited that Jennifer rolled up her sleeves and was there in the kennels with the staff," said Herrera Wardlow. "I don't know what's going on now and why. I hope that someone's able to tell me. I want to go back and help the animals."

Gfeller said in the email that some of her accomplishments during her brief tenure as shelter director included raising the standard of care for the animals, decreasing costs and the amount of time dogs were at the shelter and purchasing some basic animal care equipment for staff.

Volunteer time is extremely important at SHAS, and Gfeller had previously encouraged the community to donate time or money to the shelter when possible. Stray Hearts is partially funded through contracts with the town of Taos and Taos County for animal sheltering services for dogs and cats brought in by each government's animal control officers. With a $56,000 monthly budget, shelter officials said in a press release they are working toward a new business model to keep a steady flow of funding coming in.

"It's a tough gig," said Gfeller. "Shelter work is hard and it costs a lot to run a shelter. The board is working very hard on their fundraisers and trying to bring in donations."

But Gfeller was up front in her criticisms of the shelter in her July 4 email. "I was not up for the challenge of dealing with a shelter that was has been ran into the dirt with no money to make any changes," Gfeller wrote. "Again, if I would have known this, then I would have never accepted this job."

Stray Hearts has endured a multitude of problems in the last few years. In 2014, the shelter was thrown into a tailspin when its veterinarian had his license revoked, the vehicle of the former director was set ablaze in the shelter's parking lot and board members resigned en masse.

Harvey Yocum, who became shelter director in 2014, left in August 2016 during what he described at the time as a "pretty ugly shake-up." The board let him go nearly a month before he was scheduled to leave the shelter, creating a void filled on an interim basis by Diane Padoven until Gfeller started in April.

Despite the challenges, the shelter's board of directors said in a statement that it remains focused on providing a "safe, secure and healthy shelter" for animals in their care. Board Treasurer Kay Kimmel said in the press release that the shelter's priorities will be to ensure such care and search for the next leader of the shelter.

Gfeller said that before she left, the shelter held approximately 60 dogs and more than 100 cats and kittens.

Reporter Cody Hooks contributed to this story.

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